Academic journal article Child Welfare

Mothers' Strategies for Protecting Children from Batterers: The Perspectives of Battered Women Involved in Child Protective Services

Academic journal article Child Welfare

Mothers' Strategies for Protecting Children from Batterers: The Perspectives of Battered Women Involved in Child Protective Services

Article excerpt

During in-depth, individual interviews, seventeen battered women involved in the public child welfare system discussed the effects of domestic violence on their children, and their strategies for protecting and supporting them. Most mothers articulated the detrimental effects of domestic violence on their children and coherent strategies to protect them physically, but described difficulties supporting young children psychologically. Collectively, mothers reported a number of apparently useful strategies for supporting children's psychological resilience. Implications for intervention are discussed.

In this paper, we explore the problem of domestic violence and parenting from the perspectives of battered women involved with child protective services. Domestic violence - abuse within romantic relationships (Walker, 1994) - is witnessed by an estimated 3.3 to 10 million children annually in the United States (see Stephens, 1999). Although national data is lacking, existing evidence indicates that rates of exposure to domestic violence are particularly high among children involved in the public child welfare system with estimates up to 50% (for example, Beeman, Hagemeister, & Edleson, 2001; see Magen, Conroy, Hess, Panciera, & Simon, 2001). As "Kathy," a battered women whose children are in foster care, described:

'They experienced a lot of violence. They witnessed more than anything, but it was constant, everyday. We were very afraid of him. When it came time for him to be home from work, we were very nervous, very edgy, very little conversation went on at home. ... I knew he was trying to kill me. I could see it in his eyes. And they (children) were crying and screaming. And he was coming at me, he didn't care that the kids were there. He just wouldn't stop and he was swinging and he was so drunk. And I can't remember but he got on top of me and was straddling me, choking me again, and I took a screwdriver and stabbed him and it got him off me. And my two girls (aged 1 and 4 years) were trying to climb out a bedroom window. It (the domestic violence) had a profound effect on them. More than I could ever have imagined."

Witnessing domestic violence is a form of traumatic stress that may place children at psychological risk (for example, March, Amaya-Jackson, & Pynoos, 1996; Pynoos, Steinberg, & Goenjian, 1996). According to the DSM-IV, traumatic stress involves experiencing or witnessing actual or threatened physical injury to the self or other person, especially a family member, accompanied by fear, helplessness, horror, and, in children, disorganized or agitated behavior (American Psychiatric Association, 1994). Empirical evidence is extensive in showing that witnessing violent exchanges between adults has detrimental psychological effects on children, even if they themselves are not the targets of abuse (see Holden, Geffner, & Jouriles, 1998). Decades of research testify to the relations between family discord and children's maladjustment (for example, Baruch & Wilcox, 1944; Cummings, Vogel, Cummings, & El-Sheikh, 1989; Maughan & Cicchetti, 2002). Clear associations have been found between exposure to violence and posttraumatic symptoms and disorders even in infants and toddlers (see Osofsky, 1995). Children exposed to domestic violence may show a variety of internalizing and externalizing behaviors (see Stephens, 1999), and chronic fear response (Perry, 1997). In addition, traumatic stress may disturb children's emerging concepts of self and other, safety, and protection (Pynoos et al., 1996), and interfere with the development of affect regulation (Parens, 1991). The effects of domestic violence may be particularly devastating to children in foster care given the multiple other environmental, biological, and relationship-related risk factors to which they are regularly exposed. Indeed, young children in foster care have three to seven times more chronic emotional disorders and chronic medical conditions than children of similar socioeconomic backgrounds (Blatt & Simms, 1997) and also experience disproportionate rates of developmental delays (Cicchetti & Toth, 1995). …

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